On Dominance vs. Power, Free Will vs. Free Agency

Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are „free.“ By this, we mean individual or collective subjects who are faced with a field of possiblities in which several kinds of conduct, several ways of reacting and modes of behavior are available.  Where the determining factors are exhaustive, there is no relationship of power: slavery is not a power relationship when a man is in chains, only when he has some possible mobility, even a chance of escape [in this case it is a question of the physical relationship of the constraint.] Consequently, there is not a face-to-face confrontation power and freedom as mutually exclusive facts [freedom disappearing everywhere power is exercised] but a much more complicated interplay. In this game, freedom may well appear as the condition for the exercise of power (at the same time its precondition, since freedom must exist for power to be exerted, and also its permanent support, since without the possibility of recalcitance power would be equiavalent to a physical determination.“

Michel Foucault, Subject And Power

So, from reading Foucault, we know that he formulates power as relational.  Furthermore, he cites freedom as a precondition and a condition for the exercise of power.  This begs the question: What is exerted in the absence of freedom?

I would suggest that dominance is the answer.  The example of the relationship between the master and slave is not a power relationship, it is one of a subject exerting dominance over his object- the slave.  In chains and without a means of escape, the slave has no agency.  Free subjects, however, have agency.

[„… subjects, who are faced with a field of possiblities in which several kinds of conduct, several ways of reacting and modes of behavior are available.“]

This is especially important to note later when we read, „where there is power, there is resistance.“  You might say, „well, the slaves resisted!“  I‘ll respond by saying that in that act of resistance, they exhibit a knowledge of the possibility of escape.  As such, they are no longer solely objects subject to the dominance of their owners.  The physicality of escape imbues their bodies with a sense of ownership- hence, agency.

In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, Foucault discusses concern for self as a practice of freedom.  This may be applied to the example of the rebellious slave.  In fact, it is necessary to consider this.

Now let us switch to a different paradigm: Theology.  For now, we can resolve the problem of a God who dominates by understanding Him as a relational God, under whom all things are subjected.  Power relations are relational, however assymetrical. The dilemma is resolved when we contextualize human agency subjugated to His sovereign will.  While our choices are not without external influence and while they are situated in a world much larger than us, we have agency, and this agency comes from the substitutionary atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Consider the price of your freedom, and then you’ll understand: Freedom is not free.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. -1 Peter 2:24 (NIV)

I do not believe in free will, however, I will concede that “free” agency indeed exists.  Free will implies that individuals are capable of making independent, non-contingent choices in a world where everything is contingent and connected.  How can the individual escape subjectivity when their environment cannot?  The presumption that man makes self-determined choices in a world that shapes him strikes me as ludicrous.

As a Christian, I believe in a holy, sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient God who is above all things.  As the Creator, He exists apart from temporal and spatial realities- after all, He created them.  Just as the pupil is not greater than the teacher, the creation is not greater than the Creator.  As such, it makes sense to view creation relationally- in relation to the Creator.  Earth is subject to the gravitational pull of the moon, man is subordinate to the will of a sovereign God.

Many refuse to accept this, because it poses ethical and moral questions.  A vertical understanding of man‘s place precludes horizontal (humanist) understandings of man‘s epistemological ___.  Also, those who disagree will often ask why a „just“ God would allow injustice to exist in this world.  It goes back to the Garden- man‘s fallen state was just the beginning of the decay of all that is good and worthy.

“[we were]…born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:13

I was reading an excerpt from John Calvin’s The Bondage and Liberation of the Will:

There are four expressions regarding the will which differ from one another “namely that the will is 1) free, 2) bound, 3) self-determined, or 4) coerced. People generally understand a free will to be one which has in its power to choose good or evil …[But] There can be no such thing as a coerced will, since the two ideas are contradictory. But our responsibility as teachers is to say what it means, so that it may be understood what coercion is. Therefore we describe [as coerced] the will which does not incline this way or that of its own accord or by an internal movement of decision, but is forcibly driven by an external impulse. We say that it is self-determined when of itself it directs itself in the direction in which it is led, when it is not taken by force or dragged unwillingly. A bound will, finally, is one which because of its corruptness is held captive under the authority of its evil desires, so that it can choose nothing but evil, even if it does so of its own accord and gladly, without being driven by any external impulse.

According to these definitions we allow that man has choice and that it is self-determined, so that if he does anything evil, it should be imputed to him and to his own voluntary choosing. We do away with coercion and force, because this contradicts the nature of the will and cannot coexist with it. We deny that choice is free, because through man’s innate wickedness it is of necessity driven to what is evil and cannot seek anything but evil. And from this it is possible to deduce what a great difference there is between necessity and coercion. For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin and therefore of necessity will in an evil way. For where there is bondage, there is necessity. But it makes a great difference whether the bondage is voluntary or coerced. We locate the necessity to sin precisely in corruption of the will, from which follows that it is self-determined. (John Calvin, pp 69, 70) [source]

In our fallen state, we are far too willing to sin.  In fact, we were slaves to sin until  our life was ransomed with Jesus Christ’s blood.  Ecclesiastes 7:20 tells us:

There is not a righteous man on earth
who does what is right and never sins.

Romans 3:23 (NIV):

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

Romans 6:19-23 (NIV) puts it succinctly.

I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness. 20When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. 21What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! 22But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. 23For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in[b] Christ Jesus our Lord.

The only thing free about our fallen state is that we are free from the control of righteousness- the Law that brings Freedom.

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. -John 8:36 (NIV)


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